‘We have changed and so have restaurants’: Australia’s new dining rules | Australian food and drink

The question that we, as diners, do not ask ourselves enough is: “Am I being unreasonable?

Unfortunately, many reliable old-school restaurants choose to close rather than renew their leases. And can you blame them? Many of these owners claim that burnout is the problem. And what burnout means is constantly putting their health at risk by working in a public role, while dealing with rising food prices, rent hikes, angry customers and a nationwide labor shortage where the hospitality industry has 52,000 vacancies. These numbers place hospitality as one of the top industries experiencing a labor crisis, alongside healthcare. The demand for workers is at an all-time high.

Unsurprisingly, after being cooped up in our homes for long periods of time, we forgot how to dine. But what may come as a surprise is that it is also a new generation of catering staff who make up the bulk of the workforce. They’re green, they’ve been thrown in the deep end, and mentorship is hard to come by.

As much as we’d like to walk out and think everything was as we left it, it’s not. We have changed, and so have the restaurants. So how are we supposed to behave to make sure we can keep eating tomorrow?

Many established restaurants have closed as the hospitality industry faces a labor crisis. Photography: Joel Carrett/AAP

The obvious: book a table and read the fine print

Remember when everyone was collectively complaining that restaurants weren’t taking reservations anymore and we were longing for the good old days? Well, they’re back. Thanks to the pandemic, restaurants are even less likely to pack diners, in case dinner turns into a superspreader event, infects their floor staff, and they have to shut down for a week.

It has become common for restaurants to ask for a credit card number to guarantee a reservation. If you sacrifice your contact information, it would be negligent of you not to see what use it could be, especially if you have weird friends. If you agreed to be charged per person for a last minute no-show, you shouldn’t be upset when this happens.

Communicate

Like all successful relationships, good communication leads to better experiences. Does your group suffer from allergies? Tell the restaurant when making your reservation. There’s no way the kitchen can give you a delicious on-the-fly menu when they’re already running late, understaffed, and rolling out dishes for every other table in the room.

Do you want to sit in a specific area because you like it? Ask when booking. Has anyone suddenly caught one of the millions of viruses circulating? Let the restaurant know before you show up. Are you celebrating something? Tell them! Do you need to go out early because you have a show? Please tell them. You are late ? You know the answer to this question.

Diners are seated at tables in a China Town restaurant in Melbourne.
Dinners in a restaurant in Melbourne’s Chinatown. Communicating with a restaurant will lead to a better experience. Photography: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

To be on time

This applied before the pandemic, but it has never been more important. If your table is reserved for a second or even a third place and you have been given a departure time, this is not a suggestion.

There’s a ripple effect of you being late, and it causes stress on the floor and in the kitchen to get your meal served quicker, so people after you don’t get punished for do the right thing. Pushing to speed up a service is an act that can only be controlled by experienced personnel. Industry newbies aren’t as efficient as hospitalists and haven’t yet developed the confidence to rush an order into the kitchen. So if you’re late, you’ll make everyone late.

You can ask when the next table is coming, but keep in mind that once you leave your table will need to be cleared, sanitized and reset. You can’t just play musical chairs. That said, the industry is hospitality and staff always try to be hospitable. So if the team reads the room correctly and can move people around, they’ll let you know you can stay longer. Don’t assume this can happen every time.

Workers prepare food at Nobu Japanese restaurant in Crown Sydney
Nobu’s Kitchen, Sydney. When diners are late, it has a ripple effect on chefs. Photography: Joel Carrett/AAP

Be patient

You know how during lockdown you thought about your life choices and decided it was probably time to find a new job or quit your industry altogether to do what you love? Well, it happened in hospitality. Also, a large part of the international workforce has returned home and it is expensive and very difficult to sponsor new international workers now.

This means you are served by fewer people and they may have never worked in hospitality before. Everyone works a little slower, they’re a little clumsy, they learn on the job, and they tend to make a mistake or two. Please be kind and understanding. It’s not the end of the world if your drink takes a few minutes longer than the others – worst case scenario, just call your server back. I guarantee you they will apologize profusely. If you scare off the next generation, who will be there to serve you next week?

To arrive

It pains me to write this, but after speaking to a few restaurateurs, they all mentioned an overwhelming number of no-shows. Even when SMS and confirmation emails have been sent and acknowledged. One owner told me he texted someone half an hour after his table was supposed to arrive and got the response, “Nah, brah, I’m not coming. GF doesn’t feel it. After notifying the customer that he would be charged to cover the minimum cost of labor and wasted food, the owner discovered that the card was already depleted. Food waste is scary for any restaurateur, especially as costs rise – and they’ve already prepared it for you to eat. If you don’t show up, you’re setting someone else’s money on fire.

Workers clean tables for outdoor dining
Outdoor tables at Sambandha Nepalese restaurant in Auburn, Sydney. Remember that staff have a limited amount of time to switch roles between sessions. Photograph: Joel Carrett/EPA

What if the experience was really horrible?

We have all been here. It’s a night of rest for the front and back of the house. The bar failed to get your drinks. You’ve been standing in the cold waiting for your table to turn (see point three). Service was absent. The cold dishes arrived hot and the hot dishes arrived cold. It took forever to pay and you felt like you were left for dead in the area.

Raised by Wolves cover
Raised by Wolves, by Jess Ho. Photography: Affirm Press

Management should be able to see this and they will hurt inside watching your table receive a poor experience. If they don’t put out a million fires, they will most likely approach your table, apologize, consider your comments, and offer you drinks or send you dessert to your table. If you can give them your feedback right away, don’t make a scene. If the steering is sinking with the ship, try calling rather than calling. Email or call the restaurant to let them know about your experience. Describe what went wrong in the most graceful way possible. They can always track down your table to confirm your story, use your feedback to retrain staff, and most likely invite you to dinner with them. If there’s anything a restaurant wants, it’s to prove to you that they can do better.

Businesses are struggling to survive Covid, give them a chance to change their minds before venting your frustrations on Google.

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